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Robin Hood, Robben Island and the post apartheid state

by Neville Alexander (Workers Organisation for  Socialist Action  in SA) 

12 January 2011

This article first appeared on MarxMail

Together with ten of my comrades, I was sentenced to ten years imprisonment on Robben Island in April 1964 for allegedly conspiring to commit sabotage with a view to overthrowing the apartheid regime. Leaving aside the details of the background to this case and the real, as opposed to the court, version of what actually happened, I remember with much fondness the adamant opposition to our plans for a protracted guerrilla war in southern Africa often expressed by one of my close friends, an attorney, who unfortunately is no longer among us. He was convinced, as were many others, that this was a pipe dream. He was, however, a scintillating wit with a wonderful sense of humour. One of the first letters I received on the Island was from my learned friend. Its salutation read very simply: “Dear Robin Hood”.

I reveal this nugget because I remain convinced that the vast majority of the men who ended up on Robben Island, regardless of political party or class background, were at the time in some sense and in their own consciousness following in the footsteps of the famous archer of Sherwood Forest in that, ultimately, at the simplest possible level of description, they wanted “to steal from the rich to give to the poor”.

I am, however, not the first observer of South African society to note with alarm that this view is no longer tenable. There has been in recent months - also in the columns of this newspaper - a constant trickle of contributions, from people who can in no way be called opponents of the ruling party, warning against obviously corrupting tendencies that seem to have become endemic in the African National Congress as an organisation. Indeed, one of the most devastating of these critiques has come from within the Tripartite Alliance itself in the form of a comprehensive and in many ways searching analysis by COSATU of what appears to be wrong in that party.

In one of the more recent expressions of scepticism about the lore of the liberation struggle, Jacob Dlamini, in his essay, Native Nostalgia, makes the (actually quite obvious) point that just because a reprobate such as Joe Mamasela had stated that “not everybody on Robben Island was holy”, it does not mean that ... ordinary South Africans should be cowed from asking if the men and women who led the struggle were the heroes and heroines of legend.”. Like him, many of us are becoming increasingly anxious “... about the political entrepreneurship and racial nativism ... [we] see all about us today as black South Africans with no history of struggle take advantage of the valorisation (or is it fetishism?) of blackness to enrich themselves or gain positions”. 

Like many of us, in his attempt to explain the disastrous social, economic and political terrain in which we find ourselves today, he has decided to challenge some of the master narratives of the liberation struggle. Indeed, I am convinced that the time for those who can see that we are digging a big hole for ourselves and for the coming generations to speak up with one concerted voice, is overdue. This is not the place for a review of Dlamini’s sophisticated and challenging theses. Suffice it to say that anybody interested in understanding the real complexity and some of the conundrums of the liberation struggle should read this slender volume. Whatever one’s doubts or disagreements with the author might be, his work introduces a welcome new voice and approach into debates that have become more like a set of charades involving all the usual suspects as talking heads with every passing day. It is certainly one of the most intelligent social analyses of the post-apartheid dispensation I have read for some time.

Although, as I have intimated, many academics, activists and other writers who have an understanding of how our social order is structured and how it functions have expressed some concern about the state of affairs, I believe that much more pressure has to be placed on this layer of people to take up a clear position with respect to the post-apartheid state. One of the reasons why things seem to be sliding uncontrollably in the direction of what is quite misleadingly called a “failed state” is that the generality of the population is not aware of the dangers in the situation. In my opinion, it is the task of the “intellectuals”, as I prefer to call this group of people, regardless of the level of formal education they may have had, to spell out these dangers clearly. There will be, and there are, many contradictions and different points of view, but this is to be welcomed since it is only through the clash of ideas that clarity emerges.The following are a few of the issues that have to be taken up fearlessly and candidly, no matter how awkward they may be. It should be noted that these questions have little or nothing to do with the ANC as an organisation. They are directed to the entire leadership cadre of our country, egardless of party, since they involve fundamental questions of values, attitudes and culture, in the proper sense of that term.

One: What is our attitude towards the post-apartheid state? In the apartheid era, whatever the differences among different tendencies and factions in the national liberation movement, there was unanimity about the antagonistic relation to the apartheid-capitalist state. Do we believe that the current state can actually improve in some radical manner the socio-economic and cultural levels of the majority of our people? If we do not believe this, let us state this clearly and also give our reasons for saying so. If we believe that the current state is fundamentally able to deliver to the poor, we need to say clearly where the limits are, if there are any.

Two: It is no longer acceptable to countenance in stoic but none the less complicit silence the brazen looting of state resources – which are ultimately derived from the surplus labour of the working class – by elements of the middle and upper classes. This behaviour shows very clearly what their attitude towards the state is. Is the alienation of working class youth from the state – evident in rampant vandalism, theft, fraud, lack of institutional pride and wilful neglect of maintenance, among many other things – simply a continuation from the apartheid era of the attitudes engendered among oppressed people by the white supremacist racial order? Or, is it evidence of an emerging understanding that the ostensible disappearance of overt racial discrimination does not make the post-apartheid state less of a capitalist formation than its apartheid forebear? A more disturbing thought in this regard is the fact that these attitudes are not confined to the state and its functionaries. With many exceptions, of course, the youth seem to have been infected by the ltra-individualism and self-centredness that have come to characterise the era of neoliberal capitalism. As a result, their anger, aggression and acquisitivness are callously directed at all and sundry. This, together with the contagion of the drug culture, is indeed a toxic mix that will make any recovery and healing of a profoundly sick society extremely difficult.

Three: What can we do at the grassroots level to begin the steep ascent out of the ditch in which we have been landed? Can we help to reduce, perhaps eradicate, the culture of dependence on the state that has been the, probably unintended, consequence of the system of social grants? Can we return to the source of our liberation ideology by promoting a counter-culture of self-reliance and sharing in the process of rebuilding our communities and our eighbourhoods? These are extremely difficult questions and there are no simple answers. In the next few years, we are going to have to learn from one another’s more or less successful attempts at finding the appropriate answers in our work among the urban and the rural poor.

Four: Not everyone who reads this will agree that the question is relevant. None the less, I believe we would be failing in our duty if we did not pose it. How is the credibility of the socialist alternative to be revived in view of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the capitalist road chosen by Deng’s China? The triumphalism of the end-of-history apologists for the barbarism of neo-liberal capitalism has been muted – not silenced – by the continuing collapse of the financial markets and the attendant multiple permanent crises of that system, currently most evident in southern Europe and Ireland. The challenge at all levels – local, national, regional and international – is to identify the dynamic elements in the rapidly changing and volatile world and to forge the links between these and the post-capitalist alternative(s) in a language that is 
charged with the values and the principles of socialism but not constrained by the formulaic slogans and chants of yesterday. New wine has to be poured into new bottles if we are to inspire the young working people of the 21st century.

If this question is met with the hackneyed response that it is utopian and that I do not understand “human nature”, I point the reader in the direction of one of the most inspiring artists of the 20th century. Bertolt Brecht, in one of his most matter-of-fact moments, wrote these unforgettable words: “Injustice is human; but more human still is the war against injustice”.


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